That’s the cry from the cuckoo birds, the hungry tourist and traveller cuckoos here in the alien nest that is Mongolia, seeking to be accepted into the real experience, genuine nomad culture, this other life that is somehow more true than the one they come from.
Authenticity. I hate this word – not least because I’m a sucker myself for its meretricious promise.
After Altai and (to a lesser extent), Tuva, whose nomad-based culture has been largely destroyed by Soviet influence, Mongolia seems amazingly, er, authentic. Outside the centre of the capital, Ulan Bator, pretty much the entire population really does live in gers (yurts); they gallop around on horses or Soviet motorbikes herding shaggy yaks, silky goats, camels like miniature moving mountain ranges. They eat only meat and milk. Even young men swagger in stetsons and curl-toed boots and brown and blue deels like oriental-flavoured cowboys. It’s easy to think that this is genuine; how it has always been.
Then you visit the monasteries. At Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin, there used to be sixty-two temples. Now there are three. That’s when you realise how much Mongolia lost in the 1930s, when the Soviet-influenced government purged 18,000 lamas. The yak butter offering cakes, the thigh-bone trumpets and masked Tsam dance were relegated to a few dusty museums.
Mongolians don’t seem to resent this loss; on the whole, they like the Russians, who at least gave them education, some roads, central heating. It’s the Chinese they resent.
What is ‘authentic’? Outside Ulan Bator, pretty much everyone lives in a ger. But up to half – it depends on whose statistics you use – the population of Mongolia now lives in Ulan Bator (admittedly, a good many of them in ger districts). Some still regularly go back to family in the countryside, proud to spend the summer herding and making airag and curd. Others have never been outside the city. It’s dangerous in the countryside, they tell you. It’s dirty and difficult.
What do they mean by authenticity, these travellers and tourists (me)? A place, a culture that is as different as possible from our own.
The city, Ulan Bator, feels familiar. It feels like a brutish modern anomaly on the timeless empty plains and mountains of Mongolia. Maybe it is the Mongolia of the future.
But for now, the definitive image of this country is still, isolated in an endless landscape, against the brightest sunset, dazzling stars – a ger, a horse, a dog (a ger, a land cruiser, a satellite dish).